Cinematographer David Watkin, who worked on films ranging from Help! to Catch 22 to Moonstruck, passed on February 19 at the age of 82. The cause was cancer.
David Watkin was born in Margate, Kent on March 23, 1925. Watkin served in the British Army during World War II. Following the war he worked as a camera assistant for the Southern Railway Film Unit. The unit became part of British Transport Films (BTF) in 1950, following which Watkin began his rise from a cameraman to Director of Photography at BTF. Watkin received his first credit as Cinematographer on the film The Long Night Haul in 1956. In 1960 he began working in commercials, It was on the set of one of Watkin's projects that he met director Richard Lester, who had just finished directing A Hard Day's Night. Lester hired him to direct his next film, The Knack ...and How to Get It. He would work with Lester again on the films Help, How I Won the War, The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers, and Robin and Marian. Over the years Watkin was cinematographer on the 1968 version of The Charge of the Light Brigade, Catch-22, The Devils, To the Devil a Daughter, Moonstruck, Memphis Belle, and the 1990 version of Hamlet. His only work on television was for the miniseries Jesus of Nazareth. He won the 1986 Academy Award for Best Cinematography for Out of Africa.
Watkin was not simply a grate cinematographer, he was also an innovator. He was one of the first cinematographers to use a bounce light, lamps which are directed at walls and ceilings to create soft lighting. He also utilised the "Wendy" light (Wendy being his nickname), which featured 200 bulbs mounted on a crane at heights up to 150 feet. Essentially, the "Wendy" light simulates the appearance and shadows of natural lighting.
David Watkin won an Oscar for his work on Out of Africa and many articles have cited his work on Chariots of Fire, but I think his best work was done on other films. Indeed, I think some of his best cinematography came early in his career, in The Knack...and How to Get It and Help! In The Knack...and How to Get It he used high contrast, black and white photography and a freewheeling use of the camera to capture Swinging London perfectly. In Help! he brought the same unimpeded style to colour photography, shooting The Beatles through various filters and from often odd angles. In other films Watkin proved himself a master of light, relying on the natural lighting for his photography on Lester's Three Musketeers, Four Musketeers, and Robin and Marian. Watkin was one of the truly great cinematographers, an innovator willing to experiment who was master when it came to light sources. There are certainly few directors of photography who were ever his match.